books on books, part 2: contested will by james shapiro

The second of the three "books on books" on my spring-summer reading list was Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, by James Shapiro.

Contested Will is not an examination of who wrote Shakespeare's plays and poems, but rather of the Shakespeare authorship controversy itself. Shapiro looks at why, about 230 years after the death of William Shakespeare, a belief arose that he was not, in fact, the author of the plays and poems that bear his name – and why that belief persists to this day, supported by a thriving cottage industry. Contested Will is not so much about what people think – although some of the claims are necessarily woven in – as why they think it.

James Shapiro casts a keen, critical, and always skeptical eye at all claims both for and against Shakespeare's authorship. A Shakespeare scholar, he dislikes that the authorship question has been "walled off from serious study", as he puts it, within the scholarly community. In the excellent introduction – worth reading whether or not you read the whole book – Shapiro writes of an experience in his graduate school days that "taught me the value of revisiting truths universally acknowledged".

Shapiro also believes that the refusal of most Shakespeare scholars to even engage with the authorship question has been a mistake.
I became interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles, as well as the consequences of this collective silence. One thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn't made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever. And because prominent Shakespeareans [with some exceptions] have all but surrendered the field, general readers curious about the subject typically learn about it through books and websites of those convinced that Shakespeare could never have written the plays.
Although I don't doubt this, I may understand why Shakespeare scholars have preferred to close their eyes and stop up their ears. When one knows something to be true, it can be incredibly frustrating to be forced to defend facts, and to debate people who are heavily invested in fantasy. More power to people who can debate evolution with creationists, or who methodically prove that the Holocaust did indeed occur. I couldn't do it, and perhaps Shakespearean scholars have similar feelings.

The authorship question began in around 1850, about 230 years after William Shakespeare died. By 1884, there were 255 published works on the subject. By 1949, there were 4,500. At this point, Shapiro tells us, a running count would be impossible. It seems whole forests have been downed in attempts to disprove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Famous adherents have included Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Derek Jacobi, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Malcolm X and Charlie Chaplin.

As the number of works on the subject have multiplied, so has the number of candidates proposed as the true author of the plays and poems. Shapiro writes in the introduction: "A complete list is pointless, as it would soon be outdated. During the time I've been working on this book, four more names have been put forward." He focuses on Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (usually referred to as Oxford), not because he thinks those cases are stronger, but because "they can be taken as representative".

* * * *

Several factors gave rise to the Shakespeare authorship question. It's not a coincidence that the controversy appeared at the same literary moment as the detective novel. Also at that time, "Higher Criticism" biblical studies were rocking received literary wisdom. Philology scholars, painstakingly studying manuscripts, had proven that the Christian Bible was written hundreds of years after the death of Jesus. Similar study had demonstrated that the epics attributed to Homer were the "the products of different hands and different historical moments".

By Victorian times, Shakespeare had been deified nearly to the same degree as the writers of the Gospels, and many skeptics wanted to see a third literary god toppled. But authorship of the Scriptures and Homer had been proven through meticulous and extensive historical analysis. With Shakespeare, Shapiro writes, people were "content to insist, rather than demonstrate, that Shakespeare was as much a myth as Homer or Jesus".

Once set in motion, the authorship question has been fueled by two engines. One is anachronistic thinking – an ignorance of historical context – that projects modern modes of thought onto the past. Despite popular sayings such as "the more things change, the more they stay the same", other eras were radically different from our own. People had different expectations and so behaved differently; they asked different questions of their world and accepted different answers. This is not to say there are no historical parallels, or that we cannot empathize with people from earlier eras. But history can only be properly understood in context. (More about anachronistic thinking in a bit.)

The other fuel that feeds the authorship question are lies transmitted as fact. Shapiro writes, "More than any subject I've ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deceptions." He relates an early episode in the history of the controversy that illustrates this pattern, retracing a path that is seen again and again, full of "fabricated documents, embellished lives, concealed identity, pseudonymous authorship, contested evidence, bald-faced deception, and a failure to grasp what could not be imagined".

* * * *

The belief that Shakespeare of Stratford didn't write the plays and poems that bear his name hinges on three inter-related, incorrect assumptions.

Assumption #1: The autobiographical nature of authorship: the belief that all fiction is actually disguised autobiography, an idea that was born in Victorian times, but did not exist in Shakespeare's time.

Assumption #2: Since all fiction is autobiographical, authors can only write about what they themselves have personally experienced.

Assumption #3: Since authors can only write from personal experience, only a man of "good breeding", one with an aristocratic background and a high-quality formal education, could have produced works of such genius.

For me, this last assumption is particularly telling. Again and again, the authorship question makes assumptions about class. How could a commoner, a mere "glover's son" – as if genius is inherited through social status – have penned these works? Clearly only a member of the aristocracy could have done so. I find the assumption about fiction as autobiography bizarre, but the classist assumptions are downright offensive.

Shakespeare's sonnets, too, are read as autobiography:
The lists of Elizabethan Dark Ladies, Young Men and those with the initials W.H., H.W., W.S., or some similar combination. . . would take pages to list them all, the equivalent of an Elizabethan census. The most innocent and metaphorical utterances of the fictive speakers of Shakespeare's poems were interpreted as biographical fact.
Again and again, the same pattern appears. Mark Twain, who said his own work was always autobiographical, assumed all other writers' work was, too. Twain was also fascinated with themes of concealed and dual identities; his work is full of examples, including his own pseudonym. He was very keen to apply these fascinations to the Shakespeare plays and poems – if only someone would find the evidence. Referring to Twain, Shapiro writes:
Underlying his reasoning here was the presumption that Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers, or imagined.
Shapiro points out the sad irony of Helen Keller – often accused of merely lending her name to a ghostwriter's work, since a woman with her disabilities could not have authored best-selling books – joining a
movement committed to the belief that literature was ultimately confessional. Yet Keller was living evidence that a great writer didn't need to see or hear things herself to write about them. Though she knew this, she remained unable to accept that it was Shakespeare's ability to imagine things that mattered - and that what he found in books, as much as or more than what he experienced firsthand, stimulated his imagination, as it had hers.
The view that fiction was always autobiographical led authorship detectives on some bizarre trails. People pored through the plays, seizing on characters' actions as "clues" to who wrote them.
When desire outpaced what scholars could turn up, there remained only a few ways forward: forgery, reliance on anecdote, or turning to the works for fresh evidence about the author's life.
Yes, they turned to the work for evidence of the life. For example, if a character in a play had knowledge of falconry, it was assumed that the playwright had direct, personal experience with falconry. Therefore, only a gentleman who was a falconer could have written the play. But these techniques were only applied to certain elements of the plays. (For some reason, after seeing Macbeth, nobody claimed the playwright was a murderer.)

For decades – beginning, not coincidentally, around the time Morse code was invented – authorship detectives believed there were codes embedded in the plays, which, if properly deciphered, would prove the plays were written by [insert candidate's name here]. Untold hours and energy were consumed trying to "crack the Shakespeare code". Usually these imagined codes were the kind that can be made to reveal whatever one wants to discover. What's more, they would have been impossible to implant using Elizabethan typesetting practices.

* * * *

As far as I have seen, all the authorship claims follow a similar recipe. Begin with the premise that Shakespeare of Stratford couldn't have written the plays, because his "common" background precludes it. This premise is supported by a variety of falsehoods and aided by ignorance of Jacobean and Elizabethan England.

Add a second incorrect premise: that all the characters in the plays were based on actual historical individuals, who the playwright knew and disguised, a dramatic roman à clef.

Next, decide who each character represents. And since Shakespeare couldn't personally have known those people, therefore he couldn't have written the plays. (Never mind that there's no evidence to support any of this.)

Now that you've decided – not established or determined, just decided – that Shakespeare didn't write the plays, look for someone who more closely fits your idea of who could have written them – someone with the proper background, education, interests and personal history.

And finally, after you've settled on someone as the true author of the plays, search for scraps of information that you can claim as evidence.

You will need to massage – squeeze, pinch, pull and twist – the facts in order to make them fit your theory. Don't be shy about ignoring historical evidence and explaining away facts.

For example, Oxford, one of the most popular authorship candidates, died in 1604, before many of the plays were written; the plays contain topical references and allusions to events that took place after his death. These inconvenient details do not deter Oxfordians. They simply say that Oxford either wrote the plays before he died to be released posthumously (a claim for which they have no evidence), or the plays have been dated wrong (also no evidence), or that later writers added posthumous references to purposely plant false clues (also no evidence).

Shapiro quotes an exchange between Shakespearean scholar James Boyle and the writer James Lardner, who was covering the controversy for The New Yorker:
"The Oxfordians have constructed an interpretative framework that has an infinite capacity to explain away information. . . . All the evidence that fits the theory is accepted, and the rest rejected." When Boyle added that it was "impossible to imagine a piece of evidence that could disprove the theory to its adherents", Lardner asked, "What about a letter in Oxford's hand...congratulating William Shakespeare of Stratford on his achievements as a playwright?" Boyle didn't skip a beat, mimicking an Oxfordian response: "What an unlikely communication between an earl and a common player! Obviously, something designed to carry on the conspiracy of concealment. The very fact that he wrote such a letter presents the strongest proof we could possibly have!"
Two of the most commonly heard arguments against Shakespeare are perfect examples of the anachronistic thinking that permeates the debate. It is said that William Shakespeare of Stratford could not have written the plays and poems because he was illiterate. Supposed evidence for this is twofold: Shakespeare "couldn't even spell his own name" and he owned no books, as no books were mentioned in his will. However, during Shakespeare's lifetime, English spelling had not yet been standardized. I read the Diary of Samuel Pepys online, a work written by an educated bibliophile a half-century after Shakespeare's death. Pepys' spelling, especially of proper names, varies widely, even within the same entry. In fact, Oxford and Bacon both spelled their names several different ways. Regarding the absence of books in the Shakespeare will, Elizabethan wills didn't enumerate most household possessions. Those were found an "inventory of the testator's household effects," that is, a list of possessions. (Shakespeare's inventory has not been found, although it is referenced as having existed.) The wills of many other Elizabethans who were highly literate also contain no mention of books.

I also think the popularity of this phony "controversy" is yet another example of widespread confusion about the difference between fact and belief. Not all ideas are facts. Everyone should have equal access to ideas – but not all ideas are of equal value. This is the confusion that leads people to believe that creationism should be taught in school, or that Holocaust denial deserves serious scholarly debate. Obviously there are other motivations at work by the proponents of those ideas – religious fundamentalism, bigotry – but many people without those motivations will listen to "both sides" and weigh anything as potential evidence.

* * * *

After unpacking the themes of the authorship detectives, Shapiro makes an elegant and, to my mind, unassailable case for Shakespeare the playwright. This includes a wealth of references to Shakespeare and his work by his contemporaries, memorial tributes and other written historical evidence.

It's now known that Shakespeare co-authored five plays with other playwrights, a fairly common practice at the time. (This was brand new to me, and very interesting.) It's even known with some degree of certainty who wrote which parts. This fairly demolishes the Oxfordian theory; Shapiro notes that the Oxford crew has been silent on this topic.

In addition, the theories on how such a massive hoax - 36 plays, 154 sonnets, a hugely popular theatre company, fierce competition, thousands of copies of the work circulated, and more than 230 years without a single mention - could have been perpetrated simply do not hold up.

Finally, in a brilliant epilogue, Shapiro discusses many modern readers' tendency to assume that fiction is autobiographical. He feels that many Shakespeare scholars unwittingly feed the authorship debate by going the same route. In Shakespeare's time, Shapiro writes,
The evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular . . . were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation. . . . Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don't doubt that he did, I don't see how anyone can known with any confidence if or when or where he does so. Surely he was too accomplished a writer to recycle them in the often clumsy and undigested way that critics in search of autobiographical traces – advocates and skeptics of his authorship alike – would have us believe. . . .

You would think that the endless alternatives proposed by those reading his life out of the works – good husband or bad, crypto-Catholic or committed Protestants, gay or straight, misogynist or feminist, or, for that matter, that the works were really written by Bacon, Oxford, Marlowe and so on – would cancel each other out and lead to the conclusion that the plays and poems are not transparently autobiographical. . . .

What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.
Shapiro paints a picture of an imaginative, curious man, a gifted poet and playwright, living in multi-ethnic, polyglot London, reading voraciously, and absorbing a wealth of information about all sorts of things for which he had no personal experience. Examples from our own times are everywhere. One of my favourite novels is Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. The narrator is an abused woman; Doyle was neither. I wrote a novel in the voice of a teenage girl who uses a wheelchair. Of the various criticisms of that book, no one – including all the wheelchair users who read it – ever thought the narrator's voice was inauthentic.

It is said that the person who wrote the Shakespeare plays must have travelled to Italy, and needed an intimate knowledge of falconry. Does that mean the playwright was also a murderer? A thief? A witch? Here's a candidate for King Lear authorship because he had three daughters! Was he also a king? Did he go insane?
The plays are not an a la carte menu, from which we pick characters who will satisfy our appetite for Shakespeare's personality while passing over less appetizing choices. He imagined them all.

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